Christ but it’s awful. Between the more-inappropriate-then-ever exhortations to excessive consumption (“Battery turkey? You tasteless plebeian fiend, simply everyone’s having rare-breed Guinea Fowl with Nigella’s gingerbread-and-rollmop stuffing this year,” fuck off why don’t you, don’t you know there’s a recession on?) and the terrible music everywhere (and how much must it suck to be Jona Lewie? 11 months of the year, nobody knows who you are, then for one month EVERYONE knows EXACTLY who you are, and they all think you’re a cunt), and the pubs being full of godamned amateurs (“Oooh, is it that much for a gin and tonic?” Yes, yes it is, as you’d be well aware if you’d BEEN IN SINCE FUCKING BUDGET NIGHT, and by the way, I’ve been keeping this place going and wearing my own personal arse-groove into that barstool these past 11 months, get out of my FUCKING way and take your novelty waistcoat with you, you nebbish) and…well, you need something to counteract it all. Literature is, as always, your friend, and what you specifically need is some good, bleak stuff you can get morose and gloomy over. And that’s what I plan to give you, good and hard.
1. Martin Amis, Night Train
An unlikely source, Amis Jnr., as he normally leavens even the weightiest subjects with dextrous, scabrous comedy in a perfect mix of the broad-brush and the filigree (some other time, try Money, London Fields and Success for some of the finest comic writing of the 20th century), but this brief yet absorbing novella (partially inspired by David Simon’s Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets, The Wire fans) abjures laughs for terse, cold, hard boiled meditations on murder and suicide as responses to being alone in a godless universe.
KEY QUOTE: “You key the mike and you get the squawk that no one wants: Check suspicious odor. I have checked suspicious odors. Suspicious? No. This is blazing crime. Fulminant chemistry of death, on the planet of retards. I’ve seen bodies, dead bodies, in tiled morgues, in cell-blocks, in district lockups, in trunks of cars, in project stairwells, in loading-dock doorways, in tractor-trailer turnarounds, in torched rowhouses, in corner carryouts, in cross alleys, in crawlspaces, and I’ve never seen one that sat with me like the body of Jennifer Rockwell, propped there naked after the act of love and life, saying even this, all this, I leave behind.”
2. Neville Shute, On The Beach
Being Shute’s second most famous novel after the heart-warming, life-affirming A Town Like Alice, it gives me a schadenfreudegasm to think of all the people who followed that work with this one, and what a slap in the psyche they must have experienced. OK, from the outset it’s clear this isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs – the whole premise is that a nuclear war has destroyed the northern hemisphere, and backwoods, distant, late-50s Australia, with it’s colonial, repressed, provincial natives and a few accidental refugees, is the only habitable place left, and that only until the weather brings the poison south – but the sheer relentlessness of it, the way Shute refuses to offer any salvation or escape, just calmly narrates a group of basically decent people’s journey to a horrible, inescapable fate, adds up to one of the most despairing books ever, which will reduce even hardened cynics to tears.
KEY QUOTE: “He undid the little carton and took out the vial. “This is a dummy,” he said. “these aren’t real. Goldie gave it me to show you what to do. You just take one of them with a drink – any kind of drink. Whatever you like best. And then you just lie back, and that’s the end.”
“You mean, you die?” The cigarette was dead between her fingers.
He nodded. “When it gets too bad – it’s the way out.”
“What’s the other pill for?” she whispered.
“That’s a spare,” he said. “I suppose they give it you in case you lose one of them, or funk it.””
You wouldn’t think that a comic book about robot men, psychic superheroes, alien invasions and so forth would fit into this kind of list. You’d be wrong. Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol is full of self-aware post-modern fun with the conventions of the spandex-and-fighting genre, but is bookended by two issues which redefine grim, bleak and pitiless.
4. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Slow, elegaic, fatalistic…a lot of people seemed to miss the point of this book – a quasi-sci-fi tale of clones, bred to provide organs for donation, and doomed to an early and grisly death – asking “why didn’t they rebel and run away?” To me, it’s an extended meditation on the fact that the defining characteristic of humanity is that we don’t run away from our fate, or scream in alarm; whether in Srebrenica, Sobibor or Surbiton, we accept the hand we’re given and make the best we can of it, and support each other down the long, cold, final road.
KEY QUOTE: “Perhaps we’d have been happy if things had stayed that way for a lot longer; if we could have whiled away more afternoons chatting, having sex, reading aloud and drawing. But with the summer drawing to an end, with Tommy getting stronger, and the possibility of notice for his fourth donation growing ever more distinct, we knew we couldn’t keep putting things off indefinitely.”
5. Derek Raymond, I Was Dora Suarez
Any of Raymond’s works would have filled this slot, especially those from the Factory series, pitiless police procedurals that make Ian Rankin at his gloomiest look like an episode of Midsomer Murders. This one edges it (beyond He Died With His Eyes Open and How The Dead Live – yeah, he didn’t mess about disguising the bleakness, old DR) just for the endlessly grim, hopeless, despairing tone, they way even our nameless cop anti-hero can’t kid himself he’s saving the world, he just wants to save some last vestige of his own belief in truth, if it’s – and it probably is – the last thing he does. If you want a thoroughly depressing musical accompaniment for all this, hunt down the author and Gallon Drunk’s part-audiobook, part-soundtrack-to-a-film-that-could-never-be-made album. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
KEY QUOTE: “Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean that it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once…I asked for it, though. If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up” – Derek Raymond, The Hidden Files
Fortunately I know I don’t have to blow all my plans to be healthier and less wasteful because there at the bottom, under the leftover trifle and Christmas pud, is the veg drawer. Huzzah! I think, I am saved from yet more dairy and carbs! And yet as I open the drawer I know what will greet me. It’s the little green ghosts of Christmas past; brussel sprouts, by the armful. Luckily I am armed with a secret which can turn even these inglorious little fridge squatters into an appetising and surprisingly slimming little dish perfect for the New Year detox. So here is my recipe for easy-peasy spicy-sprout soup.
1. Raid the cupboards
So we start off by raiding the cupboards for relatively few ingredients:
1-2 handfuls of sprouts (replace with any other green veg if you prefer)
Stock cube (chicken or veg work best but this is totally optional miss it out if you prefer)
And the special ingredient: Tabasco sauce
2. Heat stuff
First, get the kettle on- you will need to fill your pan in a few minutes so best get this boiling before you start. Now find yourself a decent sized pan and whack it over a low heat with 1-2 tbsps of oil while you chop the veg.
3. Chop stuff
I like my soup farmhouse style (with chunks in) so I tend to dice my veggies so that they are bite size, but it’s entirely up to you. The smaller the bits, the quicker they cook so if you want to do this for a speedy lunchtime snack dice them finely.
Start with your onion- get it peeled, chopped and straight in the pan while you finely shred the sprouts. Add two thirds of the sprouts to the pan and put the final third to one side for later. Give your sprouts and onions a quick stir before finally dicing your potato – don’t worry about peeling, the skins just add more flavour. Then simply chuck the potato in the pan and stir for a minute or so.
Next, simply cover the veg with your pre-boiled water, add a pinch of salt, stock if you are using it and 2-3 drops of Tabasco. Simmer for 10-20 minutes or until your potato chunks are soft enough to crush with a fork. Remove from the heat and mash using a potato masher.
Remember those sprouts I told you to hold back? Add them now and leave the soup to stand for a further 5 minutes. This will allow the soup to thicken and the latest sprouts to soften without losing their vibrancy.
5. Season & Serve
At last, taste time. Make sure you taste your soup before you serve it. It will need seasoning here and how much depends on the age and condition of your ingredients to start with and your own preference. I like mine very spicy so I tend to add a lot of black pepper and another 3-4 drops of Tabasco at this point. I know full well when it gets to the table my husband will always add more salt so I tend to under-salt here on purpose.
And there you have it, ready to serve, an easy-peasy lunch with minimal ingredients, minimal fuss and maximum good girl (or boy) points. I have had mine just with some breadsticks left over from New Year’s Eve broken up as croutons for lunch, but I have an adaptation of Alicia’s Bread Recipe for the Slapdash in the oven as I type to go with tomorrow lunch’s serving (if either lasts that long).
I hope, when Pope Benedict XVI gave his Christmas Eve mass this year, he did so with a healthy sense of irony. The commercialisation of Christmas, or ‘superficial glitter’ as he put it, should be shunned in favour of a simpler, more Christian celebration. The obvious response, I would hope, from any reasonably educated individual would be that he should practice what he preaches.
The institution of the Catholic church, and indeed any religious institution, is a business set up to regulate and control the belief structure of its devotees, and to make money doing so. It is not necessary if, for example, you support Manchester United or Chelsea to belong to a supporters club, to go to matches at home or away, to buy merchandise or to subscribe to a pay-per-view channel to support your team. All these are part of a structure to facilitate your support and to make money from it. Your support is a given whether or not you participate in these activities. All it does is make it easier for you to do so.
Religious institutions are no different. They provide group activities, in a designated place of worship; they have paid individuals like priests who aid in this worship; they elicit donations of money and time from devotees; they sell merchandise such as medals, rosary beads, crucifixes; they support travel and pilgrimage by individuals and groups to other sites of worship; they even have their own radio and television stations and bookshops to spread their message. They are structured and behave in every way like a business, except that in many countries they enjoy tax-free status.
The current pontiff’s predecessor, John Paul II, instigated the practice of publishing the Vatican’s finance reports in 1981, to dispel the perception that the Holy See was rich. In the three years leading up to 2010, the Vatican reported small losses of a few million euros, before returning a profit of around ten million last year over an expenditure of 235 million. Any institution that has a cash flow of almost half a billion euros can be considered rich by any measure, whether or not they make small profits or small losses.
Not taken into account are the assets of the church, which must amount to billions in real estate, art and artefacts etc. I struggle to take seriously a message of fiscal modesty from a man who lives in the kind of extravagant opulence that would make most monarchs look like they hadn’t two palaces to rub together.
Compared to some, the Catholic church is relatively indirect in its methods. At its most extreme and obscene, daylight robbery is committed in the name of people’s good faith, exemplified by televangelists such as Oral Roberts. Amongst his fundraising methods were claims such as in 1987 when he said that God would call him to heaven – kill him, in other words – if he did not receive $8m within a set period of time. He raised it, and more. Unlike the Catholic church, pastor Roberts’ aides thought the flagrant bling he wore wasn’t an appropriate image for an honest televangelist, and his jewellery was airbrushed out of photos. That isn’t an example specific to the Catholic church, but I give it to highlight the fact that organized religion can be and is used as a vehicle to take individuals and institutions to the riches they desire.
The message at the heart of Christmas is a good one, with which I have little argument. This year I spent my first Christmas with my family for four years, and to be with them was more important to me than any amount of pretty baubles. Sure, I’d have been disappointed if there’d been nothing under the tree for me, but it would have been enough to spend time, have a drink and a good meal with those that are dear to me. The message of peace and love can often get lost among the modern trappings of the season.
The question is do we need this elderly, out of touch relic of an outdated belief system to tell us to be nice to each other, and that love is more important than money? The Catholic church certainly hopes so, because as soon as we don’t they have no need to continue to exist.
Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
It is often said you can’t go home again. This Christmas I tried to do just that, and came to understand better exactly what is meant by the phrase.
Things change, and you can’t do anything about it. For the past few years I’d been trying to make my own Christmas traditions, away from the familiar ones of my childhood and adolescence, with my partner and my cats with whom I shared a house, in a different town, with different friends. There was a conscious effort to have as little as possible to remind me of the Christmases of old.
But things didn’t quite work out, as things often don’t, and with that life as lost as the receipts for the gifts you want to take back, this year I had a choice between Christmas alone and Christmas with my family. I make it sound like that was a choice between a rock and a hard place – nothing of the kind – but to go home to my family was the obvious and preferred choice, only I did so with caution in case I stir up the vague ghosts of Christmas past.
The Christmas of my childhood is a picture postcard, framed behind glass in the eye of my memory. It is an untouchable, perfect, magical time. It also varied very little. The routine was kept to year in, year out. We would have to wait until ‘he’ had been, although as the years passed it became apparent that ‘he’ did not exist and what we were waiting for was our grandmother and uncle’s arrival to watch us open our presents. When this was done with the excitement appropriate to children, we would get ready and go next door, where the adult neighbours would have a festive drink and the children – there were lots of children on my street where I grew up – would play. Early afternoon we would travel to our grandmother’s house to enjoy Christmas dinner with my uncles, aunties, cousins and occasionally my cousins’ boyfriends – my cousins were a bit older than me – followed by party and board games.
This time, we were more insular. Those children on my street are now also grown, and some have families of their own, as does a cousin, and are beginning traditions of their own. We went through some of the moves, like drinking with the neighbours, but otherwise it bore little resemblance to my sepia tinged memories.
My parents were never rich, and as children my sister and I were never spoiled, but at this time of year they made us feel special. Now I have a better appreciation of the value and cost of items, I understand how generous they were with us. I recall one year I had asked for a SEGA Master System – not a top of the range gaming system for the time, but one, I reasoned, within the possibilities of my parents budget – but when it came to Christmas day I found they had forked out for its better, more pricey big brother the Mega Drive. Another year I recall having opened all our presents and being thoroughly pleased with our haul, only to have, a little later, our dad wheel in a mountain bike each. Shallow and consumerist, you could accuse me, but you don’t understand anything else when you’re a child.
But what I am bemoaning the loss of isn’t the monetary value of Christmas, or the fact I’m now perceived to be of an age where moccasin slippers or Marks and Spencer aftershave seem an appropriate gift. Where it hit home most was at dinner, with only five people at the table. Five people whom I love and cherish, but it just highlights who isn’t there.
You can’t go home because you want everything to be as it was, as if you’d never been away, relatives had not passed, and you lived a simpler life, protected from your worries. And at Christmas it’s the hardest time of all to go home.
You always get it at this time of year.
“Christmas is banned, you know. They call it Winterval now. Political correctness gone mad! Well, I will wish you a merry Christmas, and I don’t care who doesn’t like it. Take THAT, society! “
The story goes that a council was so scared of offending any group that they decided not to celebrate Christmas any more. They would instead celebrate a made up festival called “Winterval” and ban all mention of any kind of connection to Christianity or British traditions.
The predictable quarters, led of course by The Daily Mail, were outraged. They were so outraged that they were still quoting this as fact as recently as September of this year in the Mail, and government minister Eric Pickles attempted to stir things up last year.
It is, and always has been, an urban myth.
Birmingham council did have a promotional concept that they called “Winterval” in 1997 and 1998. This was simply a catch all term to cover the various events over the winter period – the switching on of the lights, new years eve, Diwali, Halloween and so on. Winterval did not replace Christmas in any way – it was just a marketing concept to make promotion of all these separate events easier. Christmas was still called Christmas, there were still Christmas trees, carol services and Christmas cards. Nobody was banning anything.
In fact, Winterval was printed in much smaller type on the promotional literature than the word “Christmas”, and the entire focus of the marketing was on Christmas, its symbols and events.
And, you know what, including other events, even being more inclusive in general – is that a bad thing? I would have thought it was good actually. Really good. I’m all for recognising people of other faiths and none – it makes life more interesting, and there are more parties to go to.
But pretending that Christmas is somehow under threat lets people of a…less tolerant persuasion (OK, closet racists) claim that “we” (as in, white British born people) need to somehow defend “our” traditions against this apparently huge influx of political correctness and inclusion.
So the more we point out that the whole Winterval thing is a myth, the more they splutter and point at shops daring to sell Eid cards, or bans on outright discrimination in employment, as evidence that we are living in a police state where we are somehow not allowed to say anything in case we offend any minority group.
OK, so… racist twats are a minority group, thankfully. I can offend them – watch.
FUCK OFF RACIST TWATS.
There. Happy now?
I am not much of a baker. I was recently contacted by the MOD as my biscuits could serve as an eco-friendly alternative to anti-tank munitions.
However, I do have a very easy recipe for flapjacks, which I have modified for the Christmas season.
6oz porridge oats
5oz self raising flour
4oz of mixed dried fruit – I use a mix of chopped apricots, chopped dates, cranberries and sultanas.
4oz unsalted butter
4oz soft brown sugar
2tbsp golden syrup
1tsp bicarb of soda
So, it snowed. Just a bit, but enough to get us thinking of last year and the endless endless cold white stuff that was everywhere, just getting in the way. If only we could think of a use for it…
The Baileys and Snow cocktail was born. The ingredients are:
Simply take a glass, send a willing spouse out into the cold to find some fresh white snow, pour on a good glug of Baileys and drink. Win.
Btw, fans of booze may like to check out Kris’ post on Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls vodka.
In UK I would think buying a Jacqueline Wilson paperback or two a perfectly acceptable present for a nine year old girl’s birthday. Here I scan the back of the book again, recall the child’s parents and their backgrounds, – might it include talk of boyfriends, swearing, alcohol, failure to believe in God, divorce, Harry Potter [=witchcraft]? Or indeed, if its Jacqueline Wilson, the full monty of them all? Put that high-risk book back and opt for a board game. ‘Boring!’
In UK a Tesco Finest bottle of wine brings a smile of good will to the harrassed class teacher at the end of term. In Kenya I decide wine is fine for the mzungu teacher, but no, SecondBorn’s teacher is an evangelical Christian Kenyan, almost certainly teetotal, chocolates for her.
And what of our guards? Thinnish men, managing on the Kenyan minimum wage, already getting an additional food allowance from us. What would bring them and their families a happier Christmas? We opted for a food hamper, but which one? One of the families at school advertised their company’s hamper to the parent body. Contains palm oil (for cooking), a slab of lard, a tub of blueband margarine and a bag of soap powder. ‘They’ll love it!’ enthused MoreExperiencedFriend, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy what, to my eyes, was TheWorstPresent ever.
Tom always laughs at my choice of Christmas books for him. Some very clearly are bought with solely him in mind, ‘Wildlife Photography for Experts’ for example. Others, however, he identifies as the Crossover Presents, on which he assesses I will be checking his progress at weekly intervals during the year to come. ‘How did you get on with that detective novel? Can I read it now? Pur-lee-eesee.’ And, as the year wears on, ‘Oh do get a move on. I didn’t buy it just for you you know.’ So yes, part of my criteria in the family present-giving and beyond, is to select a present you hope will really give pleasure to the recipient, but wouldn’t mind getting yourself. Tub of margarine, stricken from the list.
So back to the guards. I opted in the end for a high-class Kenyan food hamper. No chocolates nor pickles and wines in this. But a bag of dried beans, two bags of flour, a bag of sugar, a box of teabags, a tube of minty toothpaste, cooking oil, candles and so on, all put together in a practical (but vile-looking) 1970s plastic basket. Very basic rations to a Western mind. But costing, I realised, a third of a monthly wage for our guards. I was anxious giving them, but did think, well at least they could sell them on if they don’t hit the spot. But everyone’s delight seemed unforced, and today, a week on, E came and said ‘The Christmas box, it so made our Christmas.’ Which in itself is so chastening. Last year’s homemade choice of goods – phonecard, cash, torch, biscuits, chocolates – were the first time his children had ever tasted chocolate.
This year I’d managed the expat Christmas food experience far better than last year. I’d got sourcing key bits in September (mince meat), had bought the troublesome red cabbage in early December, and had put in requests to friends visiting Nairobi for business (chocolate coins, more mince pies, Christmas cake). We and our guests had eaten well. So I was downcast beyond to hear that, when we returned from our two day safari, two children had been found sorting through our rubbish bags outside the gate. Sifting through the nappies of our toddler guests, the rotten food from two weeks ago, the wrapping paper and accoutrements of a Western Christmas, to find tins and plastic which they could sell on (which anyway our handyman had taken), and cast-off food which they and their family could eat. They’d gone by the time I heard. But Kenya is a land of poverty. Christmas inclusion can’t just mean giving to those within our electric fence.
“The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich.”
Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Listening to an Austrian German covers band called The Enzianer perform a heavily accented version of YMCA to a beer-hall full of Leondensians, whilst drinking a litre of lager from a stein and eating an enormous sausage, as an experience, has to rank highly on my personal weirdness quotient.
Continental markets – in the case of Millennium Square in Leeds, specifically German – are not an unfamiliar event in our cities during the festive season. The northern city upholds its reputation as a retail destination with a suitably seasonal setting of wooden stalls dressed up like gingerbread houses, selling items both genuinely German as well as ersatz European.
There’s a limit to the amount of time you can spend looking at nutcrackers and carved wooden frogs, or eating stollen and schokokuss without starting to feel like Augustus Gloop, so it’s soon time to retreat to the pastime enjoyed by both nations: drinking.
The hub of the square is the raucous beer hall, which looks across between a traditional krauthaus and a wild-west saloon, featuring, over the entrance, a group of mechanical monks and farmers. I find these kinds if dioramas disturbing, but fortunately for me these autokrauts are turned off today. Inside, rows of benches are filled with a mixture of locals and tourists swilling beer, shouting prost, banging tables and singing along to the entertainment’s suspiciously un-German set list. It’s not like you’re handed a pair of lederhosen at the door, and, at best, the room feels like an English bar abroad, with only token nods to authenticity. The band appears every hour, plays virtually the same forty-five minutes of songs, and then disappears for a break and presumably to slit their wrists. After a few hours of this I’m dizzier than if I’d been riding the carousel outside for a week.
The problem with these kinds of events is over-subscription. At the beginning of the 21st Century I’d hope us Brits are sufficiently sophisticated enough to understand the concept of a French loaf or German frankfurter, and of the comparative value of long bread or longer sausages well enough to know when we’re being fleeced in the name of fun. Mulled wine and giant pretzels are hardly precious and unknown delicacies on our shores but still the crowds flock to buy them. Is it just the novelty value and the rare opportunity to break-up the monotonous strings of high-street chains in the almost indistinguishable city centres we’re used to? When we go abroad we seek out home comforts like chunky chips and Sky Sports rather than sample the local equivalent, so why are we so eager to give them a go when they’re on our doorstep?
I’m all for anything different that adds a little spice to the bland and frustrating Christmas shopping experience, like the cinnamon and cloves added to mulled wine. As far as I’m concerned this fayre would be a welcome regular feature that would enliven any city centre, but I don’t know if they would have wide enough appeal. There are elements of the wider public that are stuck in a Britain of the past, and think themselves thoroughly sophisticated for eating a takeaway chicken tikka regularly every Friday night. There are others who are prepared to give things a try. I’m not going to try to imbue this short article with my pro-European, progressive agenda, but sometimes I wish we wouldn’t be so isolationist, and that doesn’t just go for waiting for other cultures to be brought to us before we’re prepared to sample them.
Leeds German Market is on in Millennium Square until 18th December.